“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This familiar philosophical question came to my mind in response to a friend’s challenge of my support for WikiLeaks and call for investigation into the recent shooting of a black teen in Florida. She said, “How do you know what the truth is? How do you know that George Zimmerman didn’t act in self-defense? How do you know that Julian Assange didn’t sexually assault women in Scandinavia? … Unless you get on an airplane, go the scene of the action, and see for yourself, you can’t be absolutely certain. You can check and crosscheck multiple different sources and you can draw reasonable inferences, but you still have to inject a certain amount of faith unless you conduct your own personal investigation”.
It is true. We were not there at the moment of Trayvon Martin’s death. Someone pulled the trigger and as a result the young man was dead. At the moment of his death, the neighbor’s 911 call recorded someone crying for help. Someone was being threatened. Was it Zimmerman or Martin? We don’t know if this was a murder or an act of self defense by Zimmerman. When the tree fell down, we were not in the woods to hear it.
Later I contemplated my friend’s perspective and realized how it represents a psychological condition prevalent in American society. It is a kind of social disease, which perhaps explains the public silence around many problems in the world. This is a kind of belief system that says; I wasn’t there. I don’t know the truth, so I withhold judgment and remain aloof.
But this is why there is investigative journalism. The journalist’s role is to get as close as possible to an incident and report the story on behalf of those who were not there. For instance, the Bahrain revolution was totally blacked out from the international media. While many reporters left the country, a brave filmmaker, May Ying Welsh, the only Western television journalist to stay, went undercover and documented it from beginning to end. She put forward her footage “Shouting in the Dark” for the whole world to see. Another example is Jeremy Scahill who investigated the violent impunity of the private mercenary army BlackWater, now named Academi. His reporting showed the American people how their tax money is used to support hired assassins in the Middle East.
Through these brave journalists, our senses are extended. We hear with their ears and see through their eyes events that we ourselves cannot witness. Though I alone cannot hear the sound of the tree falling, I can vicariously experience it by entering the space and time in which the incident occurred and relive it as if it is happening in the present moment.
Yet, how much real investigative reporting is happening?
The corporate consolidation of the mainstream media has led the Press to lose much of its commitment to these ideals. Documentary filmmaker and journalist John Pilger addressed the decline of the Fourth Estate in 2007 at the forum, Socialism for 21st Century in Chicago. He said, “One of the oldest cliches of war is that truth is the first casualty. No it’s not, Journalism is the first casualty”.
Ethan McCord, the soldier in the WikiLeaks’s Collateral Murder video recounted the experience of awakening within his conscience through his experience that day. After he rescued the children from the van amid the senseless slaughter, he started to question the whole operation that he was a part of. He then went to the staff sergeant who was next in the chain of command to tell him that he needed psychological help to deal with what he was going through. He received the command, “Suck it up and be a soldier.” The chain of command in the armed forces depends on those at the bottom subjugating their will for a single purpose: to sustain the structure of power, even if it means giving up ones humanity. What many people don’t realize is that this chain of command does not apply only to soldiers. Journalists and even the public have become a part of this top down order.
John Pilger was right. Journalists are drafted into war. The maddening war machine sucks the conscience from the populace. Most people unquestioningly obey the restraining orders that keep them from getting closer to the Truth. True investigative journalists challenge the chain of command of entrenched power. But these reporters are rare or prevented from getting closer to the front lines of war. The practice of embedding journalists with the military and the police repression of the Press and citizen journalists covering Occupy Movement are just a few examples of this.
Mainstream journalists generally don’t go into the woods anymore. They cannot easily get to the tree and so don’t investigate whether it indeed fell or not, yet their stories are presented as if they were right there in the forest hearing the sounds on the front line. Even if raw footage was captured on the ground, their reports are blocked or spun in the mainstream media. It was not always this way. For instance during the Vietnam war, pictures of wounded soldiers and the dead flooded through the television into American homes. The cruel scenery of an illegal war could not be completely kept secret from the public in the early days of television. Indeed a sensational AP photograph of a Vietnamese girl naked from napalm outraged the American people and helped drive them to end the war. The military-industrial complex learned a lesson from this experience. Now the gate into the war forest is carefully guarded and images in mainstream media are tightly controlled. The false perception of legitimacy is accepted by the public as if the Press is performing the duty under the First Amendment. The media controls by selecting what stories and images are shared, how they will be filtered and what is concealed. Public faith in the appearance of authority brought the media to unquestioned cult status. This was especially true in the run up to the Iraq war. The mainstream media drumbeat helped Congress and the American people believe false claims of weapons of mass destruction and moved the country into a chain of disastrous and illegal wars. The media has become an arm of power that keeps the public in the dark about what is happening in the forest, silencing cries against injustice.
Let’s look at Assange’s case with this analogy of the tree falling. We were not there to fully understand how the alleged sexual misconduct case emerged, to know whether the tree actually fell or not. Assange has not been charged by any court. He is wanted for questioning, yet the media repeatedly reinforce misconceptions about his case, thus manufacturing reality with standard echo chamber assassination. The voice in the forest was long ago silenced, yet many people don’t even know it and only listen to official lines telling people what they want them to believe. Evidence is suppressed and the Press’s violation of ethics in misrepresenting the case is not challenged.
In responding to the debut of Assange’s new show The World Tomorrow, both the New York Times and the Guardian engaged once again in juvenile smear pieces. The Times repeated the lie that Assange was charged in Sweden and insinuated that he was “a nut job”, while the Guardian’s article concluded that Assange was “a useful idiot”.
Such uninvestigated hearsay and characterizations make headlines and shape perceptions. Words act as a virus, spreading like a contagion.
Till now, established media headlines have been perceived by most people as credible sources of news. Even total inaccuracy or lies are received with little critical examination. Yet the public faith in institutionalized communication is being shaken. The centralized control of information is breaking down at a rapid rate. Leaps in technology, Internet and Social Media have shrunk the world. People around the globe can instantly share information with one another about crucial events without centralized filtering. Peer-to-peer authentic communication circumvents the corporate media control. Live-stream broadcasts show the tree falling live. The world is now next door. People in distant places can participate and place themselves into immediate experience of unfolding events. There are now comment sections in most online articles, which readers use to call out the journalists when a story is misrepresented. People now have the last word.
We are not in the forest, yet we can hear the sound. We can see what is happening on distant shores and connect with people and their first hand experience.
With the whistleblower site Wikileaks, we have seen the arrival of a new data driven journalism. Backed up by authentic material, this small organization made it possible to convey silenced stories from witnesses who were present when the incident or the coverup occurred.
Collateral Murder brought out what really moves behind political language and how this language makes lies sound truthful and murder respectable. People can hear the trees falling. They hear the sounds of machine guns and helicopters in what had been portrayed as a silent distant forest. Recent US diplomatic cable releases showed diplomats and politicians worldwide trying to abstract justice by bending the laws and advocating for war and corporate greed. There are now thousands of examples like journalist Seymour Hersh who recently credited WikiLeaks cables for showing how the US helped get the current IAEA head elected to pressure Iran as pretext for yet another illegal war.
With all the vital information now available, apathy and indifference still exist and most people don’t want to stand up. When there is a call for justice, a symptomatic response arises: How do I know what is true? I don’t so I will not stand up for anything. When the media abandons its crucial role, namely to be in the forest and bear witness to vital events, people become skeptical and accept a doctrine of nihilism -I wasn’t there, therefore I cannot know and shouldn’t question or demand change. Many try to cling to a comfortable yet outdated philosophical mindset.
I have come to realize that it is not that people cannot know the truth. It is the belief that they don’t have the power to know that prevents them from hearing the sound of the tree falling. Most people are programed from an early age not to seek the truth but to accept predigested answers to their questions. Whenever a possibility for an alternative view opens, misdirected obeisance and nihilism grab them. Many never learned to think for themselves and rather engage in intellectual posturing to defend an unwillingness to know the truth. Once this becomes habit, it governs how we think, feel and ultimately act. By shutting down our natural curiosity, it is easy to fall back to the default position of accepting the spin and misinformation. Despite all the claims of neutrality, perception is still being molded by the dominant discourse. Unconscious and distorted images shape and influence public opinion.
My friend concluded: “In my view, [they should] put both Zimmerman and Assange on trial and let them have their day in court. Force the government to prove their case and let the jury decide. Use the system to decide guilt or innocence, otherwise all you have is mob rule”.
When truth is squashed in the first place, what happens to a system that is supposed to bring justice? Application of law is often simply a reflection of prejudice that has twisted the truth in the first place. In this unjust environment, the law cannot be applied properly. It becomes a tool to further promote oppression. No one is allowed to investigate whether the tree actually fell or not. Actual witnesses in the forest are often kept out of the court. Assange is already judged before even being charged.
In Assange’s case, the prejudice is based on WikiLeaks challenging US power. With Trayvon Martin, the issue is a white person killing a black kid with apparent impunity. Police at first released Zimmerman without charges. The Stand Your Ground law allows one to use deadly force when they are threatened and this was applied to justify Zimmerman’s act. The law is often used to favor individuals of a certain race and class over others. Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton responded to the arrest of Zimmerman, “a heart has no color. Its not black or white. It’s red..”, justice should be color blind, treating everyone equally under the law, yet reality shows the opposite.
Trayvon’s case is just the tip of the iceberg revealing the myth of equal protection under the law. Corporate executives act as if they are above the law and are given favorable treatment all the time. Bush’s authorization of NSA’s wiretapping was apparently illegal according to the FISA Act, yet telephone companies got immunity retroactively from Congress. Wall Street executives are engaging in massive fraud, causing the biggest transfer of wealth in history and are never charged or prosecuted.
Where are citizens in all of this? The doctrine of nihilism keeps them silent. We cannot know the truth, so we become spectators of a theater of a kind of secret Grand Jury persecuting the truth-tellers. People have become passive audience in the seats of a gladiator arena, where the mob rules with ignorance and prejudice, all the while manipulated by the prevailing Caesar. All they can do is to repeat the mantra: “We cannot know the truth, so why should we care?” With the doctrine of nihilism, we justify our silence.
The death of Trayvon Martin took place in February and it took nearly two months for Zimmerman to be charged and go to court. Prosecutor Angela Corey spoke of how the charges against Zimmerman were made after examining the facts and were not spurred by the massive social media outcry. Yet one might wonder why this process took so long. When justice is not served by the system that is said to guarantee it, what is left for ordinary people? My friend might call it mob rule, but I see emerging a form of direct democracy. No matter how messy it might look, it is our best hope.
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The question echoes in the silence, urging us to confront the assumptions that go with it. In seeing the injustice during the civil right movement, Martin Luther King said; “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people”.
Our society still trains us judge each other based on the color of our skin. Illegal wars in the Middle East still continue. How long do we keep this silence, denying our own power to know the truth? It is only unwarranted obedience that allows injustice to continue in the world. Dr. King urged people to break the silence and many responded to that call back then. Now the same urgency to break the silence is called for in our time.
The fact is, we can know and must strive for the truth. For this we have to be willing. We need to begin asking questions, gain accurate information and engage in rigorous, independent analysis. When the tree falls in the woods, the crying voices of those who are crushed will be heard. More than ever, now is the time to break the silence.
Note: This piece was originally published at WL Central.